The NeverEnding Story III: Escape from Fantasia (1994) (part 1 of 8)
[Editor’s Note: If you haven’t seen the previous two movies in the NeverEnding Story series, never fear! You can read all about them in the Agonizer, where I posted mini-recaps of The NeverEnding Story (1984) and The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter (1990), which should give you all the background you need about Bastian, Fantasia, the Childlike Empress, and what the hell an AURYN is. Also, a big thanks goes out to Jason Sartin for proofreading and editing this recap! —Albert]
Greetings, fellow citizens and anonymous webrats alike! My name is Michael, but you can call me Mendo, and if I may, I’d like to be your host for a recap of what is hands-down the most depressingly inept family film of the 1990s. I would say “of all time”, but simply knowing that there’s a film bearing the name “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” prevents me from fully engaging my well-practiced hyperbole skills.
A few of you may remember me from the Battlefield Earth Mega Recap. As you can imagine, participating in a recap for this site after several years of fanhood was like a dream come true. But even more than that, it had a profound effect on my life as a whole, and it even led me to the girl of my dreams. But, as Michael Ende often said, that’s another story, and shall be told another time.
A few years back, I was thumbing through a glossy entertainment publication, which had a cover story about “The Worst Movie Characters Ever!” Supposedly, it was a detailed list of “those characters so awful their very presence destroys a film.” I for one didn’t put much stock in this article; a list of worst-ever characters that doesn’t include Jessica Stein was not made by thinking people.
But there was a small sidebar about today’s hottest stars, and the embarrassing first films they appeared in. Again, I can’t say I agreed with most of their choices, but the one that stood out the most was Jack Black, for The NeverEnding Story III.
This immediately reminded me of watching previews for NeverEnding Story III when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I had two thoughts upon recalling these previews. One was, “Oh my God, Jack Black was in that?” The second was, “I knew it was going to suck!”
Yes, even at that tender age, when I still considered The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones a cinematic gem to rival anything in the Scorsese canon, I just knew this movie was going to blow. Just from the previews, I could tell it was completely unlike the two movies that came before it, and the people involved were either entirely ignorant of what made those films successful, or they knew that the third movie in a series is required by law to suck, and were perfectly content to make, well, the Battlefield Earth of family films. Even back then, I could tell they didn’t have smart children in mind when they made this movie.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you: I was never a huge fan of the NeverEnding Story films. I only ever had a passing interest in them, and really just the second one, on account of it having that Bugs Bunny cartoon before it, and on occasion I’d feel stupid for just watching that.
The first film, in yet another Battlefield Earth parallel, only covered half of the source novel. This is one of the reasons the author, Michael Ende, sued to have his name taken out of the credits. He was only half-successful—his name was taken out of the opening credits, but not the closing credits. Go figure.
The second film, according to most people in the know, was vaguely similar in plotting to the second half of the novel, but it was mostly just a new story. I have a feeling Ende wasn’t too fond of that movie, either.
Regardless, it appears the previous two films made just enough money to justify a third. Unfortunately, with the first two NeverEnding Story movies having exhausted the original novel’s material completely, the filmmakers must have felt they had free reign to come up with a completely new story. So did screenwriter Jeff Lieberman come up with something creative and original? No, that would have required effort. Instead, he just knocked off the Power Rangers.
Yes. Power Rangers.
Don’t believe me? The plot is as follows: The bad guys steal a magic artifact, which causes massive mayhem involving people in latex puppet suits. They use magic to make children act mean to each other, and it’s up to a group of other kids to save the day through the power of friendship. Throw in a wise mystic who gives them magical powers, then spends the rest of the time sitting on his ass and watching bad things happen, and the analogy becomes even more nauseatingly complete.
Only two things save this film from being a total rip-off of Power Rangers: One, a subplot where the lead character’s dad gets remarried, and two, all the latex puppet suits were created by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. Unfortunately, this only makes the movie a rip-off of other, much better Henson Creature Shop productions, most notably the ABC series Dinosaurs. But it gets even worse than that.
To wit: The Atreyu character does not return for this film.
I know. Even in the source novel (of which I’m something of a fan) that warrior kid was the only thing that really held everything together. I grew up thinking he was the coolest dude ever, and I didn’t even like these movies. Why they thought anyone would stand for a NeverEnding Story movie without Atreyu fails just about any common sense test I can think of. I mean, it’s not as if they had the excuse of the actor not coming back. After all, they replaced the entire cast since the second film (and even the second film only kept on one actor from the original movie).
Knowing all this, you may ask, who would get involved with this project? The star, as this film never ever ever wants you to forget, is Free Willy‘s Jason James Richter. Clearly, Richter had a worse agent than the guy who played Mowgli in Disney’s live action Jungle Book. He probably thought this would get him out of making whale movies for the rest of his life, but he was sadly mistaken. Sadly, sadly mistaken.
Most of the other actors had been, or would go onto, spending years doing one-shot guest appearances on various TV shows. For some, this movie is tragically their one and only chance at film immortality.
The man they got to direct? Peter MacDonald. At first this might strike you as odd, given the illustrious career he’s had. Over the years, in his alternating capacities as a cameraman and second unit director, MacDonald has been involved with some of the most popular movies of all time, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Empire Strikes Back, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Batman, Superman I and II, the Harry Potter movies, and… Tango and Cash? Oh well, they can’t all be winners.
How could someone so accomplished give us this piece of shit? Sadly, one of the drawbacks to having such a long career is one inevitably makes a lot of bad movies, too. If crew people were counted, Peter MacDonald would be a four-time Repeat Offender here at Agony Booth, because he served as a second unit director on Eragon and Batman & Robin, as well as a cameraman on Zardoz. (And if that’s not enough for you, there are three genuine Repeat Offenders in this film.)
How could MacDonald, a second unit director for the Harry Potter films, be so bad at fantasy? I can’t bring myself to blame him. The man obviously has talent. So I did some snooping, and learned that there were a total of five production companies involved in this movie. What’s that they say about too many cooks, again?
And as if all this weren’t red flaggy enough, this film was made in 1994, but held from American theaters for two years! That’s right, even though the first one was a worldwide hit, and the second one made enough money to warrant a third, even the suits knew NeverEnding Story III wouldn’t have a chance in hell at the box office. I’m sure at one point they contemplated burying all the negatives in the desert along with those Atari E.T. cartridges. But by 1996, they must have realized the competition wasn’t going to get any weaker, so they released their flop and took it like men.
Being the fair person that I am, I usually try to include snippets of interviews from the guilty parties whenever I’m engaged in movie criticism. But, as if made privy to my intentions, our good friends at the internet seem to have obliterated all advanced press materials from this film’s premiere. Seriously, I could not find a single interview given for this film, and as many big name people who are connected to it, that completely boggles the mind.
There isn’t even a director’s commentary on the DVD. Granted, with the way this film sunk, I doubt many people actually saw it, so MacDonald defending himself isn’t really necessary in the cosmic sense. Still, it would have been nice if he cared enough to do it.
So, basically, between no real impact on the world at large, and nothing left of it in the media except barbed criticisms on the internet, and scholarly records of said barbs, this film could very easily not exist. And that goes double for the actual script.
Before I get started, though, there’s a bit of Video Box Idiocy I wanted to point out. Wow, we haven’t had an installment of that in a while! So here’s what I found on the DVD cover:
Okay, skipping all that obvious Disney Channel-style marketing pap, I’d like to unveil what I’m calling The Empire Records Rule. This states that any movie that isn’t Empire Records that uses its soundtrack as its main selling point is, officially, a piece of shit. And yes, I’m aware of the previews for Clerks, and how they hyped the soundtrack, but because society has since learned how good the movie is, they no longer market it that way, so it doesn’t count.
But enough of my endless stalling! Join me as I plunge into the abyss, before we all regain our collective senses and go watch a good movie instead. If you make it all the way through, I’ll even reveal a shocking twist!